Every once in a while, a film comes along that resolutely restores your faith in cinema, which is so often tarnished by predictable genre pieces, boring blockbusters and endless Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. Australian director David Michôd’s debut feature Animal Kingdom (2010) is not only that precise film, but is also arguably the most tense, atmospheric crime thriller for over two decades, a period stretching all the way back to the release of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster classic Goodfellas. With Animal Kingdom, Michôd somehow manages to reach the same levels of fear and anxiety seen periodically in Scorsese’s aforementioned mobster tale.
Animal Kingdom tells the story of 17-year-old Melbourne resident Joshua ‘J’ Cody (an impressive turn from newcomer James Frecheville), who is taken in by his charismatic grandmother Janine (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver) and her three criminal sons after his mother dies of an heroin overdose. J has little time to settle in to his new residence before normality is once again disrupted, this time by the arrival of the eldest, most unstable member of the Cody clan (and J’s uncle), the ironically named ‘Pope’ (a truly terrifying Ben Mendelsohn). Pope’s introduction quickly brings the full force of the Melbourne Police Department upon the bank-robbing, drug-dealing Cody family, while J and his new girlfriend also find themselves hunted down by a band of renegade cops.
There are simply not enough superlatives to explain how bowled over I was by Michôd’s exceptional debut. Animal Kingdom not only serves as yet another fine addition to a growing canon of Australian crime dramas – joining Andrew Dominik’s grimly comic Chopper (2000) and outback western The Proposition (2005), to name but two – but also now proudly wears the bloodied crown of “King of the Jungle” in terms of tension, menace and impact. The film’s superbly atmospheric soundtrack – courtesy of Disgrace (2008) composer Antony Partos – is just one of many symbiotic elements that have played their part during the film’s near-immaculate construction. Other notable strings to the film’s bow include the Melbourne setting (with the city now commonly referred to as Australia’s “crime capital”), Adam Arkapow’s patient camerawork and last, but not least, the seminal, all-Australian cast.
Every single performance featured in the Animal Kingdom is pitch perfect, with particular praise reserved for Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver, the iconic Guy Pearce as the enigmatic Detective Leckie and the sensational Mendelsohn as the unpredictable figure of ‘Pope’ Cody. It may only be late February, but in my eyes Animal Kingdom is already an early front runner for film of the year. Michôd’s remarkable debut is the most complete, emotionally engaging film of 2011 so far, easily eclipsing big hitters 127 Hours, The King’s Speech, Black Swan and True Grit, and perhaps only meeting a worthy adversary in terms of sheer storytelling prowess in the guise of David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). If you make the effort to see just one film at the cinema this year, make sure your ticket reads “Animal Kingdom”.